Twenty seasons after he was first strapped into a speedway car, Mark Osborne is enjoying his newfound ranking as a rookie.
Cantabrian Osborne has earned newbie status because this is his first season in a super saloon, tomorrow's featured class at the Tahuna Beach Holiday Park Speedway.
But he's no newcomer to the dirt ovals. He began racing as a 15-year-old, driving a production saloon at a black track, before continuing in the same class in Rotorua.
When his dad became too busy to race his limited saloon, young Mark took over at the wheel of the Kuriger Corvette, before later embarking on a long and successful stint in superstocks.
But a move from Rotorua, one of superstock racing's strongholds, to Christchurch with his firewood business, also saw Osborne's speedway focus shift.
"There just aren't the numbers in superstocks here," he said. "You can win races without having to try too hard and that counts against you when you travel to the big championship meetings - you just don't have those hard race laps behind you."
With his father falling ill and stepping back from the family business, Osborne also considered the impact of a racing injury. "I need to be at work now, not away with an injury. The super saloons are strong here so we sold the superstock and changed classes," Osborne said. "Now, I am a rookie again after 20 years of non-stop speedway seasons."
Osborne purchased a near-new Hypermac race car from builder Shane McIntyre and filled the gap in the front with a methanol-burning Chev engine, formerly run by Canterbury class rival Bruce Boulton. The combination of the most successful chassis style in the class, a proven engine and Osborne's undoubted abilities is already paying off.
"I've had five or six meetings and we have been able to run at the front and win some races," he said.
One was in Nelson last weekend when the 16C team came north to get some track time before tomorrow's round in the ELF Super Cup series. Osborne finished second to Nelson's Ian Burson in race one, sprinted away in race two, then had to pull to the infield with a recurring engine issue in heat three. "We thought we had a fuel problem at the last three meetings. It turned out to be a blown head gasket, so we will pick up a few horsepower that had gone missing."
The ELF Cup series has been the saviour of super saloon racing in the South Island. Previously, it had been based on a 16-car field, but the 2012-13 version has 20 starters.
Cars race two heats with a marble draw, then a reverse grid. The front half of the field then goes into a pole shuffle, similar to a king of the table scenario in pub pool, with two cars duelling over two laps and the winner staying on to meet the next challenger.
The pole shuffle determines the grid for a 25-lap final, with points for placings and points for passes.
Osborne was late entering the series and was listed as first reserve, only securing his place in the pack when Canterbury's Ryan Berry wrecked his car in a big crash.
Frontrunners tonight in Blenheim and tomorrow in Nelson are likely to include Osborne, Burson, defending champion Josh Boulton, former 3NZs Richie Taylor and Mike Verdoner, and Nelson's Carey brothers.
"You look at the entry list and, as much as I miss the superstocks, I know I have made the right move," Osborne said.
"I feel like I am ahead of my own schedule a bit to even be hoping to compete with the likes of Burs [Burson], Josh and Richie. They've been bloody good for years."
Tomorrow's Nelson Speedway Association meeting also features the closed club championships for stockcars and a production saloons triples promotion.
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